Volunteer Stories – Doug, Window Wizard

Doug, one of our Window Wizards works incredibly hard along with the other volunteers to put our fantastic Window Museum displays together. #TheLastGrainRace was his idea, check out below to hear from Doug about the process the team took to get it all in place.

#TheLastGrainRace – Our 19th Window Museum Exhibition

Ping! Another email drops in to the inbox. It’s from Des Pawson. Having polled the Window Wizards to check on their availability. The date and time of the next meeting are sent out to us all.

It’s spring 2018. We’ve had a month’s rest since installing the 17th window display comprising items from Des’s Museum of Knots and Sailor’s Ropework and it’s time to start planning number 18. This will be based around the historic cast plaques mounted on buildings of maritime significance in Ipswich.

The meeting progresses well and it looks as if much of the burden will fall upon Colin and Ben to design and develop a map and models of the relevant buildings, with Stuart sourcing photographs, Pam off to the records office and the rest of us writing up short descriptions of the significance of each site for Richard to edit.

There is something else on Des’s mind. What about window 19, 20 and future windows. “Shouldn’t we try and draw up a list of possible subjects that fit the criteria of being connected to Ipswich and its Maritime History?”

Blank faces all around. Then the first suggestion. “How about the Development of the Wet Dock from first concept to the modern day?”

That starts the ball rolling, other ideas are discussed and debated. The development and demise of the Dock Railway, Association with the Hanseatic League, Fishing and Whaling. I’m keeping pretty quiet. I’m still an incomer, only living in the outlying area for twenty five years although I’ve been bringing sailing barges in and out for over thirty years and was based in the Dock as Skipper of the Sailing Barge ENA for the last three years of her time under the ownership of R & W Paul’s Social Club. I’m also quite a new addition to the team having joined up when Des was looking for more volunteers to join the Window Wizards.

Des puts me on the spot. “Come on Doug there must be something you’re interested in that would make a good subject.”

Well, I say, “I’ve always been interested in working sail, apart from Sailing Barges. I’ve seen pictures of big Square Riggers in the Dock and down in Butterman’s  Bay, perhaps there’s a story there.”

Abraham Rydberg in the Wet Dock – Austin Farrar Collection, IMT Image Archive

“OK, let’s add it to the list.”

The meeting finishes with a list of five or six ideas and we agree a possible date for the next meeting and go home.

At the next meeting we find that good progress is being made with the map and models and thoughts turn to our list of future windows.

We start to put them in order, and it looks like my suggestion might come to fruition as Window number 19. Des is talking about finding models of Fruit Schooners and Humber Keels worried that we might rely too much on photographs. Robert Simper has a model and a diorama which might be of interest. Des and I go to see him and leave it open whether we would use them until nearer the time.

I don’t say much as I’m not too comfortable with the way things are going, it’s not really what I had in mind. Anyway, we have to concentrate on completing Window 18 and getting that installed. First we have to take all of the items from the Knots and Ropework display back to Des’s Museum, including a six foot length of anchor cable from HMS Victory which weighs a ton. Then we install the map and the plaques and models. Each plaque or model has to be linked to the map with a ribbon. This is a fiddle and takes quite a bit of time to get right so the ribbons don’t sag. Even so it only takes a day and a half to complete which is good because there’s a bitter wind blowing through the alley beside the window and we have to keep taking refuge in the caff next door to warm up.

A few days later I’m thinking about the working sail window again and suddenly remember a book by Richard Smith titled Blue Water Sail at Ipswich. I pull it down off the shelf and lose myself in its pages for an hour. Wonderful photographs and a very detailed history. There is a chapter about Gustav Erikson who bought many of the last great windjammers and put them to work in the 1920’s and 1930’s in the Nitrate trade from the coast of Peru and the Grain Trade from Australia.

Many of these ships came to Ipswich to discharge their cargo of Australian wheat. This sends me off on another search of my library. I pick out Eric Newby’s The Last Grain Race and Learning the Ropes and Alan Villiers’ Falmouth for Orders and By Way of Cape Horn.

Here I find the key, the theme I had been looking for, 1939!

Next year will be 2019, 80 years since The Last Grain Race of 1939.

Back to Blue Water Sail. In 1939 the Four Mast Barque Abraham Rydberg took part in the race and arrived in Ipswich on June 18th.

I put my suggestion to Des. A title, something like, Ipswich and the Last Grain Race some more details and photos of the Abraham Rydberg, I know we already have a super picture of her towing through Ipswich Lock. We agree to put it to the other Wizards at the next meeting.

It seems to go down well. I show them a map of the world with the course sailing ships used to follow down to Australia and back which also has arrows marking the great winds of the world upon which they relied. The Trade Winds, the Roaring Forties, as the westerly winds of the Southern Ocean are known and so on.

Over the next months we get to work. Stuart dives into the Image Archive. He also scans a copy of the map which can be blown up so a tracing can be made onto a board which Colin and Ben can illustrate.

Richard negotiates with a friend who has a very large model of the 5-mast barque Potosi and Des contacts the Nottage Maritime Institute. They have a medium sized model of a 4-mast barque called Lady Helen which they are willing to lend, and we also have a very small model of the Herzogin Cecilie available to us that we can use.

The small model of the Herzogin Cecilie

I make a list of the ships in the Last Grain Race and start writing a short history of each devoting more time to Abraham Rydberg and discover she had a very long life under many owners. I delve into the pages of Basil Lubbock’s Last of the Windjammers for early histories of some of the other ships, and of course there is a wealth of material to be found on the internet. I find out more of the sad fate of Herzogin Cecilie wrecked on the South Coast of England after winning the 1936 Grain Race.

I need to write something about Butterman’s Bay to explain why these great ships couldn’t come straight up into the Wet Dock and in doing so I find an anomaly over the current width of the dock which would make some of the ships too wide to enter. Ben comes up with a document with the original dimensions. All made clear. At some time the dockside was lined with wooden fendering to prevent damage to the walls thus reducing the width.

I also want to explain the different meanings of “Tonnage” as the same word has been used as a measurement of both weight and volume. I struggle to find a form of words to explain it simply. Richard has a go but I think his explanation is even more complicated. At the next meeting it is suggested that it may be too complicated, and we should drop the subject all together, but I feel it’s important. So, I contact my 16 year old grandson and ask him if, given the details, he could try and rewrite it in a form that makes sense to him. I get something back a day or two later which I present to the others. We agree that a panel will be made about it and will only be included if there is room for it. I have to be satisfied with that as I feel it is important to include, in the end there is room within the display to place it.

Another panel needs to be written about the trade winds and how they influenced the course followed by the ships on their voyages South and North, and another about how what came to be known as The Grain Races came about and the influence of Gustav Erikson in keeping these wonderful ships sailing so late into the twentieth century.

All these are then sent to Richard to edit and format onto the captions and information panels.

Apart from the photo of Abraham Rydberg towing through the lock three other large images are needed to complete the backdrop. Stuart found one in the collection which I was able to confirm as the Pommern, and another of Abraham Rydberg and Des and I hunted round to find an action shot of men aloft stowing a sail on the mainyard of the full rigged ship Grace Harwar.

Abraham Rydberg in the Wet Dock – IMT Image Archive

All this takes place over the winter months of 2018/19 and before we know it, Spring is upon us. Everything is coming together nicely and we decide on an installation date of May 29-30.

It doesn’t take long to dismantle the previous window and after a good clean up and minor repairs to the floor covering, installation begins. The model of Potosi has been collected. It’s even bigger than we thought, and heavier, it takes four to carry it through from the car park and lift it up into the window through the narrow doorway and onto its plinth. Panels telling her story are placed in front. The photos go up on the backdrop held up on Velcro strips and pinned for safety.  Shelves go in for the Lady Helen to sit on and some descriptive panels including one showing the basic sailplan of the mizzen mast of Abraham Rydberg. Then the smaller printed panels can go up. The map is placed on blocks on the floor tilted slightly to make it easy to read. Working backwards toward the door the final items are put in place finishing with the image of Grace Harwar hanging in front of the door.

Stuart makes some final touches to the display

So, there we are 80 years on, almost to the day, when Abraham Rydberg arrived, window number 19 is complete.

So, what happened to these amazing vessels after the Last Grain Race? Well with the advent of the Second World War in 1939 the fleet of windjammers was dispersed across the seven seas. Some traded on the Eastern Seaboard of America including Abraham Rydberg for a while. Others were impounded or laid up and some were sunk. A few voyages were made after the war and into the 1950s, but the costs were so high and the freights so low, that without some sort of government backing there was no hope of survival.

There are a few survivors, however. The Passat lies in Travemunde with masts stepped and yards crossed and can be visited. The Pommern is at the home of Gustav Eriksons fleet in Mariehamn in the Aland Islands of the Baltic. Having undergone a three year restoration she is open to visitors again. The Peking saw service as the training ship Arethusa before being taken to New York to be displayed at the South Street Seaport Museum. After 40 years she was bought for $100 and transported to Hamburg where she has been undergoing very extensive restoration at the cost of millions of Euros. She should be open for visitors this year and will move to a permanent berth when the new German Port Museum is completed.

I am delighted that we have been able to tell this story to the people of Ipswich and from all parts. It is a part of the heritage of the town and I hope that anyone who sees the display will feel we have done it justice.

Written by Doug Nicholls – Window Wizard Volunteer

Reader Interactions


  1. Les Langford says

    The barge Lady Daphne helped salvage some of the cargo when the Herzogin Cecile was wrecked off the South Devon coast

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